For almost two weeks now I’ve had a new creative practice, doodling in bed every morning, playing with black line on white paper. I never know how I will start, and I never know what is going to emerge.
Even though all I’m using is a humble black marker, this is Creative Sandbox play at its best, totally detached from the outcome.
And the cool part is that I often really like the outcome!
I’ve been marveling at how different this experience is from how I used to approach my art, not so very long ago. If my life were a movie, I’d have to rewind all the way back to nursery school to find a scene that matches the kind of playfulness and joy I get from making art these days.
Let’s take a look at a montage of scenes, shall we? Flashbacks of my art life, that have much to reveal about my evolution (or de-evolution?) as an artist.
Nursery school. Standing outside at an easel. My mommy has arrived to pick me up, and I’m showing her a painting I made, with big, clunky brushers and chalky poster paints.
“It’s a house,” I declare, proudly beaming at my masterpiece of drips and smooshes in muted purpley-brown and teal.
I have no memory of what Mom said. That was apparently irrelevant to my 3-year-old mind.
All I remember is how much fun it was to paint, and being proud and happy that I made this.
Kindergarten. The art table. Mandy and Laura are drawing bunnies and chickies. I want to draw bunnies and chickies too, so I do.
The three of us giggle with delight, all drawing bunnies and chickies.
Kindergarten, again. Sometime before Easter. Our teacher, Mrs. Chong, gives us each a big egg-shaped piece of white cardstock to take home and decorate.
She explains that all the kids in all the schools in Palo Alto get to decorate these egg-shaped posters, and some lucky children will win prizes.
I’m excited, because I know I’m going to win first prize: a blue ribbon and five whole dollars.
I skip home with the egg in my hand, careful not to bend it, and as soon as I’m through the door I run to pull out my crayons. I plunk down at the kitchen counter and draw my masterpiece: bunnies and chickies, eggs and flowers, marching in nesting ovals around the egg in pastel colors.
No hemming and hawing about the right thing to draw, no resistance, no judgment. Just pure joy.
I can almost feel the silky blue ribbon in my hand.
Kindergarten again, weeks later. I’m sitting on the rug in a clump with the other kindergarteners, waiting with bright eyes for Mrs. Chong to announce my first place prize. But as she reads out the Honorable Mentions, she calls my name.
My heart drops to the floor and shatters. An Honorable Mention means I did not win First Place. Surely there must be some mistake…
Everything slows down. My ears are buzzing as, in a haze, I get up and walk to the front of the room to receive my pastel egg and stand with the other Honorable Mention recipients.
I am numb as Mrs. Chong announces the Third Place and Second Place winners.
Then my numbness turns to shock and rage when Mrs. Chong calls Stephanie’s name and holds up her First Place egg. It’s a blot of random colors. A baby’s scribble!
Mrs. Chong hands the blue ribbon and an envelope that jangles with five dollars worth of coins to Stephanie, and I am incensed, consumed with envy, smacked up against the unfairness of life.
I manage to hold in my tears until I get home, where I crawl into my mom’s lap and sob and sob.
First grade. Aaron is drawing race cars. Really, really good race cars, that look real.
I have no desire to draw race cars, but it is still clear to me that he is much better at drawing than I am.
Fifth grade. The poster I ordered from the Scholastic Book Club has arrived! A painting of a rabbit so realistic that I can make out every single hair of its fur.
I cannot paint like that.
If I were a real artist, surely I’d be able to paint like that, but clearly I am not a real artist.
Middle School. Age thirteen. I’m in a drawing class after school, with older kids and adults. We’ve just come in from drawing trees out in the courtyard.
Everyone else’s trees look like trees. Mine looks like a disaster.
More confirmation that I am not a real artist.
I do not sign up for art classes again.
High School. My friend, Karen, draws all the time. She wants to go to the Rhode Island School of Design and major in fashion.
Her drawings are amazing. Clearly she is a real artist. Unlike me.
Yet more confirmation that I am not a real artist.
I did not make art for fifteen years.
Really, it’s kind of amazing I ever came back to art, but fifteen years after my last art class, at age 28, I tip-toed back into making things with my hands. That was the year I dove into calligraphy, the refuge of countless creators who think, “I’m not an artist, but I can write, so surely I can learn calligraphy.”
Famous last words. It’s a good thing I didn’t realize how hard calligraphy is when I started.
Something about it captivated me, though, and I persevered through the hard. I labored over meticulously designed pieces. I got “good enough” to hang out a proverbial shingle and actually charge for my work.
But within a couple of years all of those same doubts and gremlins came out of the woodwork with a vengeance.
It’s the late-Nineties. I have a tiny, growing calligraphy business. More than one couple has actually paid me to make the ketubah for their wedding.
I tear open an envelope and unfold a flyer to read a call for entries for a show, and I want to make something to enter… but I don’t even try.
I know nothing I make could possibly be good enough.
Notice: it wasn’t about whether it was fun, but whether I was good. Where did the unconstrained delight of that three-year-old go?
Enter the Creative Sandbox
Some part of me never forgot that three-year-old me, and thankfully, just five years ago now, I let her wisdom teach me.
I knew that if I were ever going to get back to creative joy again, something had to change. So I very intentionally set out to re-occupy the mindset of a three- or four-year-old, and in the process developed the ten “rules” of my Creative Sandbox Manifesto.
And here I am, approaching fifty, finally recapturing the freedom and delight that I — and each one of us — entered the world with.
As child, it all came naturally. As an adult, riddled with creativity scars, I need rules and reminders to keep me playing freely.
I do not consider this a problem. My philosophy? Whatever works, baby!
One of the reasons I like to start a new piece with no pre-planned ideas is that it helps prevent perfectionism from creeping in and grinding me to a halt.
No plan = no way I can screw it up!
This spontaneous, improvisational way of working allows me to be in a constant state of discovery and curiosity, exactly where I want to be.
I discover what the artwork wants to be as I go along, in partnership with the art—we discover together.
There’s no pressure, only play.
I still marvel at my ability to let go and do this, because for so many years I was trapped in perfectionist paralysis, unable to let go, play, explore.
Only when I finally allowed myself to make crap did I return to the freedom I remember feeling in nursery school, when art was play, and the only rules were to wear a smock and not put the paint in your (or anyone else’s) hair or mouth!
What a relief to have finally (re)discovered the Creative Sandbox, where this kind of play can happen again.
PS – Want to find that sense of play for yourself? Join me on Wednesday, January 20th, for a FREE class, Born to Create: Why Your Creative Play is ESSENTIAL, Not Self-Indulgent. Click here to register now.
Then join me for a week of joyful creating in Creative Sandbox 101. Find your inner three-year-old again, and learn how to break the shackles of self-doubt and resistance once and for all.